Rural Arts & Culture Summit

Every two years, the Rural Arts & Culture Summit brings together arts practitioners and organizations to discuss strategies that build vital roles for the arts within rural communities. Organized by Springboard for the Arts, the 2019 sold-out summit was held October 3-5 in Grand Rapids, with people coming from 25 different states. Breakout sessions included topics like finding equity through female-led creative and artistic action, sustainable mending, marketing tips, and bridging political divide through community collaboration.


Moira Villiard (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Introduction to the Summit

On the first full day of the Summit, a panel of artists and arts activists spoke candidly about their experiences in rural Minnesota. Moira Villiard of the American Community Indian Housing Organization in Duluth (ACIHO) outlined specific ways cities can support their arts community. “Encourage people to look at what is missing in the narratives of their hometowns. ACIHO commissioned a huge mural of a water protector by Nsrgnts, and it is one of the only depictions of persons of color that has been put up by people of color in our artsy city. We were tired of looking at all of the public art and seeing that we are missing from the narrative.”

Villiard continued, “We use the metaphor of having a seat at the table, and that metaphor is weird for me sometimes, because I always think that the table is already set. Are    you allowing people to build their own tables or to use a completely different structure than a table? Speaking from the Indigenous perspective, people’s idea of what is Native American is generally wrong.”

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Native Cooperative Workshop

Pamela Standing (photo by Sarah Whiting)

One of the many breakout sessions was led by Pamela Standing of the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance. Titled, “Creating a Statewide Native Buying and Marketing Cooperative,” it covered the feasibility of creating a cooperative that supports artistic endeavors and increases group buying power. In an interview with Minnesota Women’s Press, Standing said, “My experience with cooperatives goes back to my college years. We started one on Cherokee Nation in the early nineties that was open for about 10 years. I love the idea of working together, and people being able to have a voice in how to incorporate their own values and visions into what they are doing.”

She thinks ideally a cooperative would span across several reservations. “One community could host the  pottery wheels and kilns. As a member you would have access to that kiln. Another community could be doing silkscreening or web development.”

Standing talked about the importance of those people who champion the concept at the beginning, and shepherd it through the first formative years. “For anything to work, you need to have people who are relationship builders.”

Attendees Respond

Goals for the Summit varied among participants. Denise Todd,  with the Central MN Arts Board, talked about one   of the breakout sessions she attended. “I learned a lot about how a very tiny idea can be given shape and brought to a community and they can make it grow into something fantastic. You don’t really think about that as an artist. You think ‘I just have this one painting or this one sculpture,’ and then it turns into something more. We don’t need to fund big things that focus on bringing communities together, but can focus on projects that have meaning because it is going to naturally bring people together. I’m pretty sure that is not the message they were trying to send in the breakout session, but that is the message that I got.”

Sue Gens, Executive Director of the Minnesota  State  Arts Board, shared, “I’m trying to identify people we might want to stay connected with. People that we could fund or collaborate on a partnership with. I also went to a session about evaluation because as a public funder, we’re always looking for good ways to evaluate the impact of the work. A lot of times in the arts, we have a sense of the importance   of the work, but we don’t have the data. The arts are kind of intangible. How do you decide how artwork has changed you as a person? Sometimes it takes a while.”

Gens also discussed the importance of rural Minnesota artists. “Many people [in the Twin Cities] don’t think about the things going across the state. I was really struck by what Sonja Merrild said this morning — that rural communities need to tell their stories, and not let their stories be told by someone else, or shaped by someone else. Because there really is a tremendous amount of activity happening all across the state of Minnesota.”

Annie Humphrey (Native American Music Awards 2018 Artist of the Year), playing her song, “Eat What you Kill” (photo by Sarah Whiting)
(l-r) Moira Villiard (American Community Indian Housing Organization), Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux (Mayor of Grand Marais), Sonja Merrild (Grand Rapids Arts & Culture Commission/Blandin Foundation), Annie Humphrey (Native American Music Awards 2018 Artist of the Year), Delina White (Anishinaabe fashion designer and bead work artist), and moderator Whitney Kimball Coe (Center for Rural Strategies)